The second part of our series reveals how young people advocating drug policy reform cope with the new challenges and opportunities brought by the COVID-crisis.
During COVID-19 lockdowns, Youth RISE has seen its members acting quickly on the ground to ensure that the communities of people who use drugs and other marginalized populations have what they need. Adapting to the difficulties of lockdowns and streets becoming more dangerous requires insider knowledge and a lot of trust.
Youth RISE members supported one another throughout the pandemic in terms of harm reduction advice and sharing lessons, but also on a personal level. As a decentralized organization where much of communication is virtual, Youth RISE members were well-adapted to lots of video calls.
Also due to COVID-19, Rory O’Brien’s SSDP chapter and Sensible Minnesota teamed up to get a letter drafted and sent to prevent the eviction of people living in sober living homes. They worked with a state representative to draft and send a letter that informed the administration of sober living homes that the peacetime emergency ban on evictions applied to them. They also disseminated it online, informing those living in these homes of their rights.
When Róisín was SSDP Chapter Leader for Dublin City University, they heard that the university was rewriting their alcohol policy, and saw a window of opportunity. They approached the administration and asked to rewrite their drug policy as well.
“The people who were getting in trouble for drugs were generally not necessarily the people who were doing the most drugs or doing drugs in the most visible way,” she shared, noting different socioeconomic backgrounds as a determinant for who was targeted.
Róisín credits the attention their efforts got to how well-informed they were about the subject area.
“We were really really prepared, we had researched drug policies from across the world in different universities…We knew what we were talking about, and they really did respect it. That was the moment that I realized we can actually make change. Because that drug policy still stands today in that university.”
University-level reform is one of the primary areas where SSDPers can have an impact. At Durham, Dasha’s chapter has been working to bring drug safety testing kits to the university, and also to change the university’s drug policy.
In Ghana, education and dialogue surrounding drug-related issues remains of paramount importance. Both Clement and Daniel stressed the importance of education from the ground up about drug-related issues.
Daniel maintains that stigma is one of the biggest barriers to change in Ghana. To combat stigma, education surrounding drugs must start at the most local level: one’s own circle.
“Personally I’m talking to my circles, and also engaging the movement in the networks that I work with, to say, we need to look at drug use from this other perspective where we are not seeing it as drug abuse, or something illegal, or something criminalized, but we need to open it up to say what really is drug use about, and what really is drug policy about, and how do we ensure that in these conversations the human rights and health of people is prioritized.”
Daniel also noted the importance of media engagement in demystifying drug use.
“I think the more often we talk about it, the more resistance we face, the more we are able to change the narrative and reform people’s views on drug use,” shared Daniel.
“The people who are being affected by the issue do not know that this particular issue is affecting them,” said Clement. For the global Support. Don’t Punish Day of Action 2020, SSDP Ghana organized a talk show on the biggest state-owned TV station and largest campus-based radio station in Ghana.
“The rich or the poor, everyone can tune in and listen.”
For Support. Don’t Punish SSDP Durham also focused on education and awareness. They held two webinars, one on restorative justice and the other a training session on drug policy advocacy. They featured speakers from Decarceration Nation, Amplify RJ, SSDP and IDPC. Additionally, they held a sticker campaign around the UK.
Case study: Ghana’s drug policy reform
During the time that Clement was developing as a drug policy reform activist, Ghana was considering revising its drug laws away from tough criminalization, with a 5-10 year prison term for possession. Now, the Narcotics Control Commission Bill calls for treating drug-related issues as health issues and embraces harm reduction. The shift away from a criminal justice approach to drug policy is powerful. For example, instead of being sent to prison directly for drug-related charges, new options for rehabilitation or counselling are open as an intermediate step. Cannabis has been legalized, though only for medical, scientific, and industrial purposes. For possession, the prison term decreased to 15 months or a fine.
The previous Narcotics Control Commission Bill that had been in effect for 30 years, was, in Clement’s opinion, “full of the war on drugs. It’s full of prejudice, myth, religious background … not what science is saying. Not what evidence is saying,” he said.
The current government had, however, committed to revising it.
As a university student, Clement was able to capitalize on the well-established network at his university. At events, he took any opportunity to speak to politicians and government officials about his take on drug policy.
SSDP Ghana came together to compile their input on the draft bill that was before parliament, working in conjunction with other civil society groups and the coalition of drug policy reform advocates in the country. Daniel was also part of these conversations, working primarily with the Hemp Association of Ghana and the International Drug Policy Consortium.
The memorandum that these stakeholders drafted was accepted, and they were invited to parliament to speak on the memorandum and engage in dialogue with the parliament, ministers, and stakeholders. Clement was the youngest among those present.
“You are trying to make a policy…that affects largely the young population, and we have a limited representation of these people…I couldn’t believe it.”
After consulting with civil society, the government still wanted to hear from experts. Clement’s SSDP chapter assisted in organizing the first-ever national drug policy conference, and they invited stakeholders and experts like U.S. American professor Carl Hart to Ghana to present on the research and science of drug policy.
Clement believes that policy reform was long overdue in Ghana. Existing drug laws go back to Ghana’s colonial past as a British colony. It was also a focal point in the slave trade, serving as a last point of departure for many African slaves from the continent.
“If these colonial masters are reforming their drug policy…why are we still keeping it? The likes of Portugal, the first country to come to the coasts of Ghana or the coast of Africa, they’ve been able to reform their drug policy…they have drifted from it and we are still holding on to what we have,” Clement shared.
It was difficult, specifically, to get the Ghanaian government to see the value in harm reduction.
“I think for a long time it was also seen as, you know, overlooking the harms that drug users face, so you’re just saying let’s legalize and let’s decriminalize…We have made a strong statement saying that we know our context, and we want to appreciate context-specific solutions but also we need to be cognizant of the fact that there are underlying human rights issues and underlying health issues that need to be respected,” said Daniel.
Ghana also has a great climate for growing cannabis, and it’s a priority of young drug policy activists to ensure that newly-possible cultivation of the crop is able to uplift communities and further the country’s development. In addition to the opening cannabis market, Daniel envisions linking drug policy and development in other ways.
“We can also look at…offering opportunities to people who use drugs, and how we can transform negative records that have been attached to people who use drugs into recommendations for their skill set and expertise and what they can bring on board to contribute to economic growth and national development,” he said.
The work continues. A lot of bureaucracy has come into the picture with the bill’s passage, such as licensing for cannabis growth or linking the new policy to economic development, which is part of what drug policy activists must consider now. Keeping a seat at the table won’t be easy, however. The political system in Ghana doesn’t lend itself naturally to youth involvement, and is laden with bureaucracy.
“That’s why I would count it as fortunate that some of us have been granted the privilege to access some of these key political spaces, where it’s like a handful of stakeholders who are able to engage in conversations,” said Daniel, who is committed to further progression in harm reduction and human rights for Ghana’s drug policy.
Challenges and looking forward
Despite the incredible passion and grit displayed by young drug policy activists, the challenges they face are many. Perhaps the hardest is finding a seat at the table and being taken seriously. The spaces where drug policy conversations happen are often hyper-formal and dominated by older, male voices. Authentic presentation as young people, and people who use drugs, can create a higher barrier to entry.
“You’re being systematically ignored on every level. It’s impossible just to get a foot in the door… you’re at meetings where you’re the youngest person in the room, and you’re a person who uses drugs, and people don’t want to hear what you have to say because they don’t respect you in any way,” shared Ailish.
Róisín has seen, while advocating internationally, including at the United Nations, that young people are held to a higher standard in advocacy, in terms of appearance and the substance of their advocacy.
“Young people are expected to show up, and to look like lawyers, to be wearing a full suit, and to have every single piece of evidence ready at the tip of their tongue, and the article and the year it came out, they’re expected to like do everything they can not to be young people in that space,” shared Róisín, who has attended The UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs as an SSDP delegate.
Hannah C. Taylor